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Growing alliance between Republicans and Latin American right is on full display at CPAC

Presidents Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Javier Milei of Argentina will take the stage this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the most prominent gatherings of conservatives, underscoring the growing alliance between right-leaning Latin American leaders and the Republican Party.

While some Republicans view the bond as a way to shore up votes for the November election, Latin American leaders see it as a strategic way to strengthen their relationship with potential future leaders of the U.S. and influence foreign policy.

“They are trying to make sure they have a good relationship with somebody who could be the next president,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor and a Democrat. “But it’s a double-edged sword because they could ostensibly be latching themselves on to somebody who could lose.”

“Why are Republicans interested? These are very popular Latin American politicians today,” Gamarra said.

The idea of a regional gathering of like-minded political leaders is not new. For decades, left-wing political parties and activists in Latin America have gathered for a conference known as the Foro de São Paulo. They had success in the early 2000s, with a pink tide where leftist presidents were elected in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Argentina.

Gamarra said that though Democrats never took part in the Foro de São Paulo, many on the right accuse President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama of being “useful tools” of the Foro de São Paulo and that negotiating with leftist governments, like Cuba or Venezuela, is part of Democrats’ “naiveté.”

With CPAC, “the right has grown in the context of what they have always said that the left was doing,” Gamarra said.

CPAC, in recent years, has transformed from being the premier gathering of Republicans to one dominated by former president Donald Trump and those aligned with him. It has expanded beyond the annual conference in the U.S., and since 2019 has held a spinoff in Brazil, which U.S. conservative leaders have attended. It has also held conferences in Mexico, Israel, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

The union between Republicans and the Latin American right strengthened with the close relationship between then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Trump. Bolsonaro, well liked among conservatives in the U.S., spoke at the 2023 CPAC after losing his re-election bid.

Trump allies had worked to help Bolsonaro in his 2022 re-election bid, exporting some of Trump’s campaign strategies, including suggestions of voter fraud ahead of the election.

When Bolsonaro lost and his supporters stormed government buildings in protest — events that were compared to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot in the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters — members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle spoke with current and former Trump advisers, including Steve Bannon, to map out a strategy. Eduardo Bolsonaro, a congressman and the former president’s son, met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago to talk about next steps.

Now conservatives have turned their attention to Bukele and Milei.

“Our movement, as you can see, is international: It’s amazing to have two presidents from Latin America,” Mercedes Schlapp, a senior CPAC fellow and former Trump administration adviser, said in an interview with Telemundo News last week. “Listening directly to these leaders is important because they can communicate the anti-communist, anti-leftist message since they know the danger and the harm the communists have caused in their countries and in Latin America.”

While Republicans have traditionally accused Democratic presidents and other political leaders of being communists and socialists, the claims became a centerpiece of Trump’s 2020 campaign. Ads and events geared toward Hispanics and falsely tying Democrats to communism were particularly prominent in Florida, where many Latino voters who fled authoritarian leftist governments now live.

“Getting closer to the Latino community is a priority. We know that Latinos are naturally conservative, they’re about faith, family and homeland, and they are seeing leftists destroy our country,” Schlapp told Telemundo News.

For Republicans, the presence of Bukele and Milei not only reinforces an anti-left message, but they’re also banking on the large following and appeal both leaders have in the U.S. and internationally.

In interviews with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Bukele touted the measures he’s taken to make El Salvador safer and said crime in major U.S. cities is “by design“ and a product of “enemies” within the U.S. political system, while Milei praised Trump and called campaigns to legalize abortion part of a “socialist agenda.”

Bukele, 42, won re-election this month with an overwhelming majority and has an approval rating of almost 90%. The country, once one of the most violent in the world, has become relatively safe under a huge crackdown on gangs and the detaining of tens of thousands of people. Some of the tactics Bukele’s government has used, including the suspension of some fundamental rights under a state of emergency and the incarceration of innocent people, have drawn widespread criticism.

“They say globalism comes to die at CPAC. I’m here to tell you that in El Salvador it’s already dead,” Bukele said during his CPAC speech Thursday. “But if you want globalism to die here too you must be willing to unapologetically fight against everything and everyone that stands for it. Fight for your freedoms, fight for your rights.”

Bukele has also come under fire from critics who accuse him of anti-democratic tactics, like packing courts with loyalists. But his model for governing has gained more popularity in the region amid growing gang and cartel violence, and he has attracted support from Salvadorans in the U.S. and other Latinos.

In the past, the Biden administration has criticized some of Bukele’s moves, like ending constitutional term limits on the presidency. But more recently the Biden administration has warmed up to the Central American leader as it seeks ways to control migration through the U.S. southern border. In October, the State Department’s top Latin America official, Brian Nichols, posted a picture on X, formerly known as Twitter, shaking hands with Bukele during a visit to El Salvador. Days later Bukele announced that the government was charging travelers from dozens of countries a $1,130 fee to connect through the nation’s main airport.

Milei, a right-wing populist economist inaugurated in December, has toned down his rhetoric since his brash presidential campaign. He often used a chainsaw to demonstrate how he would downsize what he called the bloated state. Since taking office, he’s been attempting to roll out a “shock therapy” economic plan in an attempt to stabilize Argentina’s economic crisis and soaring inflation.

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This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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